Yes, the cost of university study does deter disadvantaged students

New research from the Sutton Trust finds a widespread appetite for higher education is dampened by perceptions of the cost of study.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

If you know a young person contemplating higher education this autumn, chances are you’ve had more conversations about money than about learning.

Fees (in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) weigh heavy on the minds of applicants – but living costs (not least the ever-growing proportions of available funds devoted to rent) are also an immediate concern.

This has been the case for a good few years now – but given the conflation of Covid impacts and the cost of living crisis it makes sense to take the temperature now to see how the class of 2023 are reacting.

COSMO quiz

Longitudinal studies have been a feature of research around attitudes for higher learning for a while now – and today’s new research from the Sutton Trust is the first major publication I know of to make use of data from wave two of the Covid-19 Social Mobility and Opportunities (COSMO) study. The first wave of COSMO spoke to over 13,000 young people across England just before they took GCSEs and equivalents in 2021 – wave two went back to this same group in 2022 as their final year of A level courses commenced.

Whereas wave one focused primarily on responses to the pandemic and associated restrictions, the second wave tackles issues around ambitions for further study and associated blocking factors.

In comparison with the equivalent point in Next Steps cohort study (which spoke to A level candidates in 2008) today’s young people are more likely to be actively considering university study – some 68 per cent (compared to 57 per cent in 2008)

It’s what your parents earn

However, this is very closely correlated with socioeconomic background. Some 57 per cent of young people with working place parents are considering university, compared with 77 per cent of the children of professionals and managers. Looking at starker measures of disadvantage makes for an even bleaker picture – just 48 per cent of young people whose parents had used a foodbank in the previous year had any kind of university plans, some 21 percentage points down from their peers.

This effect even extends to the type of provider you are considering. Just 37 percent of those young people considering university whose parents had used a foodbank were aiming at a Russell Group university – the equivalent figure is 50 per cent for other young people. Private education also has a close correlation with selective universities – some 80 per cent of private school pupils look to a future at one of the 24 Russell Group universities.

No place like home?

While you could attribute some of the figures above to differences in support available, or even aspiration, the question of where prospective students hope to live comes right back to brass tacks. Twenty per cent of all young people planning to attend university were expecting to live at home during term time, with a further 14 per cent undecided on the matter. If someone was planning to live at home 18 per cent reported that the main reason was the costs of living away.

Among likely applicants, if parents used a food bank in the past year 31 per cent intended to live at home, compared to 19 per cent of peers. There’s a similar gap for young people whose parents were behind on housing payments (33 per cent against 17 per cent). And, again as you might expect – there’s a difference between state school pupils (21 per cent expected to live at home) and their privately-educated peers (just 4 per cent planned to live at home).

To be clear, there are many reasons you might choose to live at home during term time. Perhaps your preferred course was offered in your own local university. Perhaps you have caring responsibilities, or perhaps you just like being near family and friends. But we should be concerned when decisions made for economic reasons affect educational aspirations.

The university experience

There are a number of ways to experience higher level study – and the diversity and quality of what is on offer is growing all the time. From a foundation degree at an FE college, to a degree apprenticeship based primarily at an employer, to part-time distance learning – and to new opportunities like higher technical qualifications (HTQs) and a lifetime of shorter courses via the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, there is something for everyone.

However, when politicians and policymakers think about students they imagine their lives as being similar to what they experienced – three years of full-time study living away from home and experiencing everything that new friends and a new city can offer. Increasingly, it appears, this model is only available if your parents have money.

Young people planning to live at home are far less likely (37 per cent as against 56 per cent) to be considering a Russell Group university. This mirrors the impact of parental income, suggesting that it may be that financial concerns may be playing as much a part in choosing a place to study as aptitude or aspirations.

If we turn to young people not considering university some 22 per cent said their decision not to apply was linked to affordability – they simply didn’t feel like they had the financial wherewithal to do it. And among young people not considering university, this figure rises to 27 per cent – among the children of those who have used a foodbank in the last year this rises to an astonishing 39 per cent.

Investment advice

Let that sink in – nearly four in ten of the most deprived young people have ruled out university study because of concerns about money.

While nearly three quarters of young people agreed that getting a degree was a ticket to better paid jobs, less than half viewed taking up student loans as a good investment. Among working class families just 43 per cent saw loans as a sensible plan. Here is clear evidence that people are using immediate financial concerns to rule out their participation in something they agree would benefit them long term.

For years ministers have liked to boast that the imposition of higher fees in 2012 has not led, despite predictions to the contrary, to a decline in participation among poorer groups. As the number of students has increased substantially, the proportion of the least advantaged quintile of young people engaged in study has grown (though not, of course, as far and as fast as among their most advantaged peers).

The COSMO study, and this early research finding from the Sutton Trust, illustrates something that feels like common sense – the cost of university plays a significant part in deterring disadvantaged young people from considering it. Reforms to student finance has made the deal look even worse – and the proposed solution in the form of the LLE simply extends similar finances for courses with a less certain benefit.

One response to “Yes, the cost of university study does deter disadvantaged students

  1. “While nearly three quarters of young people agreed that getting a degree was a ticket to better paid jobs, less than half viewed taking up student loans as a good investment.”

    It seems the indoctrination by gradate teachers of the young about better paid jobs is working well, though theirs and moreover their parents ‘real world™’ experience about loans is rightfully tempering the effect. The difference is similar to my colleague and his partner, his technical training (non-uni) v her gradate and masters degrees, both are on the same University pay grade, she’d paying ~£125 a month for the student loans, so actually worse off!

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